Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers, New York, 2005) 430 pages
This must be record for length of time between publication and appearing on this site. It only came out on March 10, and here it is, 19 days later. (I have no idea why Amazon thinks this book has 448 pages: the last numbered page in mine is 430, and only one more leaf is added with author biography.)
So, yes, this is the story of the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by the German submarine U-20 on Friday, May 7, 1915, at 2:10 PM local time, almost exactly one hundred years ago. But because it is an Erik Larson book, a reader can expect much more than a dry recitation of facts. Larson’s nonfiction books have the great attribute of giving a reader more of the emotional feel of the time and the place and the event. He usually does this by juxtaposing two main characters, one good and one evil, and treating them both with the same degree of precision and detail. It is up to the readers to experience the revelations that allow them to realize the heights of their imagination or the depths of their depravity.
For example, in The Devil in the White City, Larson contrasts 1893 Chicago World’s Fair designer Daniel H. Burnham with famed murdered H. H. Holmes, who posed as a doctor to lure his victims. His book In the Garden of the Beasts pairs the innocent American Martha Dodd, daughter of the American Ambassador the Nazi Germany in 1933, with the whole charm-you-to-death Nazi hierarchy. As a reader, I will never forget the scene during her outing with a top Nazi official when the couple is interrupted by a parade of irate citizens escorting a beaten woman whose hair has been rudely cut off. The crowd is screaming curses and carrying signs. Oh, the Nazi says casually, that’s just a woman who was going to marry a Jew. Don’t worry. They’re just going to stone her to death to teach others a lesson.
And that’s Larson’s way of saying “That whole Nazi-Jew thing got out of hand really quickly.”
The equivalent in Dead Wake—the title refers to the surfacing bubbles trailing a torpedo speeding to its target—is the pairing of two captains: Captain Turner of the Lusitania and Kptlt. (Captain) Schwieiger of Unterseeboot-20. The stoic bravery of Turner, who rode the bridge wing right down into the water (page 278) and was picked up hours later by a rescue ship and ultimately survived, is obviously to be admired by every reader. After watching seagulls swoop down and pluck the eyeballs from the floating dead, Turner brought a rifle onto his other ships and shot as many seagulls as he could (page 296). This is the kind of human observation that you come to expect from Larson.
Schwieger’s behavior after the fatal torpedo shot is more problematic. His girlfriend later claimed (anonymously) that Schwieger was “a shattered man” (page 292) because of the sinking and loss of life (only 764 of the 1959 on board survived). However, Schwieger’s own ship’s log (which survived when the U-20 later ran aground on a sandy beach) shows him taking another shot at an oil tanker only five minutes (!) after sinking the Lusitania (page 293).
Oddly, out of the 7 torpedoes on board U-20, only the G6 model fired at the Lusitania actually sank a ship. The rest either misfired or missed or did not cause major damage. Atop such small things does the world pivot.
Larson provides details on many of the passengers, mostly in first or second class. The new Boddy lifejackets caused the deaths of many because people put them on incorrectly or even upside-down, causing them to float rump-up until the sea claimed them. The loss of a rare copy of the A Christmas Carol annotated in Charles Dickens’s own hand is also lamented: bookstore owner Charles Lauriat took it into a lifeboat, but it then tumbled into the sea when the lifeboat overturned. (Note to Larson: the remark on page 311 about Nellie Huston’s bulky “derriere” is hard to reference because somehow the origin of the comment on page 166 is left out of the index. Fix that for next printing, okay?) J
One would think that three years after the Titanic catastrophe in 1912 and its lifeboat issues, the lifeboats on the Lusitania would not be a problem. But the Lusitania showed that sheer numbers of lifeboats is not the solution (the ship carried enough lifeboats for 2605 people: page 69). The British navy had siphoned off most of the experienced seamen and those grappling with the lines and “falls” on the Lusitania doubled as baggage handlers and servers. Because it was the day before landing in Liverpool, many of the crew were in the hold, reachable only by one electric elevator, marshalling the bags for arrival. When the torpedo hit, most of these were either killed instantly or drowned when the ship went under in an astonishing 18 minutes. As a result, the launching of the lifeboats, not commenced immediately because no one really thought a single 20 foot torpedo could sink a monster ship almost a thousand feet long.
Some lifeboats tumbled their passengers into the water, while others were dropped right atop others. Due to the list of the damaged ship, some released lifeboats crushed passengers waiting to board. The speed of the ship worked against them too, and not only by driving water through the 40-fott gash in the hull. Controls on the bridge failed, so the ship still drifted forward as it sank, sweeping lifeboats to the rear. As a result, only six of the 20 permanent lifeboats were launched properly.
A final mystery revolves around why on earth the British allowed the Lusitania to wander alone toward the Irish Sea when (a) the British knew U-20 had sunk other ships recently and was still around, (b) the safer alternate route north around Ireland was being used, and (c) the navy had provided escorts for other important ships before. Readers are left to wonder if First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was protected some very important derrieres himself when he tried to blame it all on Captain Turner (page 318).
Growing in America, I was of course taught that the sinking of Lusitania with US citizens aboard was one the primary reasons that the USA declared war on Germany. The truth is that two years elapsed before the USA declared war and this was mainly because of the Zimmerman Telegram promising Mexico the return of US territory if they joined the central powers. But the Lusitania was a big thing, and we expect big things to have big effects, even though they might not.
Larson’s book helps put the sinking in perspective, as does his little discourses on things like the history of submarine warfare. Submarine warfare went from a gentile form of piracy during wartime to a matter of life and death very quickly. Submarines were supposed to stop non-warships and, after allowing the crew to leave in lifeboats, either sink them or claim them as prizes. But it was hard to crew a prize and a submarine on the surface is at its most vulnerable, so the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later became the rule of the day. Even Sound of Music patriarch von Trapp sank a French liner and killed 684 (page 106). Purists cringed, I suppose, but there was a war to be won. So there.
This book is Larson’s way of saying “That whole submarine warfare thing got out of hand really quickly.”